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50 Stories Part 50: Volunteers are Everywhere

50 Stories Part 50: Volunteers are Everywhere

50 Stories Part 50: Volunteers are Everywhere

Image: ConnecTeen volunteers (Amy Li on the right) at the 2014 Calgary Hitmen game in support of ConnecTeen.

Read – 50 Stories Part 49

There would be no Distress Centre without the original group of volunteers, so it seems only fitting that our 50th story focuses on our volunteers. What follows are a few volunteer highlights from 2010 to 2020.

In 2011, ConnecTeen had the ability for volunteers to use phone, email and chat. A radio ad and comic book created by teen volunteers offered “advice that doesn’t suck” successfully attracting new teen callers.

Mohammed Kardar speaks to his experience on this line:

“A lot of teenagers used messenger or chat, as a result, my observation shifts were about ‘how can I word this to help this person. I think the peer support is great, because teens know what is going on with teens. “

img des: A group shot of 20 or so people.
A group shot of our volunteers from the 2015 Volunteer Appreciation Event.

Amy Li volunteered at the same time:

“I remember a lot of role plays in the training, and how difficult they were. In some ways it was a lot harder than actually being on the lines.”

Evolving technology

In November of 2012, adult chat was added. Chat conversations lasted longer than phone (12-15 minutes on the phone vs 40-60 with online chat) and were more serious, with suicide a more frequent topic. Text messaging for ConnecTeen was introduced in 2013 using $40,000 donated from the Calgary Foundation. Volunteer Irene Zhang noted:

img des: Two people standing. One is holding an award.
ConnecTeen volunteer Keeley (right), with team lead Kaylee at the 2015 Youth of Distinction Awards.

“Since we take our phones with us everywhere, texting is a lot more accessible to people.”

The 2013 annual report noted that it cost $1,800 to recruit, train, retain and support 1 volunteer for 1 year. That year, 459 volunteers provided 43,578 hours of service. 96% reported they used their new skills outside of Distress Centre. Catherine Macdonald remarks on this aspect of volunteering:

“I come from a finance background, my whole world is accounting and business. One of the key things is that volunteering has given me tools and language to discuss mental health issues, particularly suicide. I find my interactions with people when they are challenged have been a lot more helpful. Active listening and validation are two things I was not very good at before.”

Her son Nic speaks to his learnings from ConnecTeen:

“It completely changed how I interact with my friends, especially those with a crisis or issues. I like being the person my friends come to when they have issues. Distress Centre training just kind of kicks in and I am more aware of how what I say affects my communication with others. The skills you learn from being on the line, you can’t learn that anywhere else.”

The power of volunteers

A 2016 Social Return on Investment (SROI) external review found:

“Volunteers can better relate to the experience of the caller. They are more empathetic and respectful, and interact as peers rather than experts. They are more helpful in crisis situations, particularly when there is a risk of suicide. Value is created by the volunteer’s ability to de-escalate crisis situations.”

Over 530 volunteer shifts were added and volunteers hours that year represented almost $1 million savings in salaries. As always, volunteers often had to react to what was happening in the media. The TV series 13 Reasons Why, with a focus on teen suicide, is one example. Nic Macdonald comments:

img des: Two people holding a certificate.
Jerilyn Dressler (left) with crisis line volunteer, George Coutts at the 2019 Volunteer Appreciation Event.

“I hate that show. It is good that people reached out to us, but the negative impact the show had on so many people is not a good thing. People seemed to fantasize, she was almost glamorized, and everybody loves her now, after she killed herself.”

‘I just listen.’

Adult crisis line volunteers George and Donna Coutts speak to their volunteering experiences:


“The recession calls started a few years ago, and now they are just a regular part of our shift. If you are there for a four-hour shift and you get a dozen calls, probably one or two might be from new Canadians. If they ask for another language, we try and accommodate that. Most are struggling financially.”


“When you are on the lines you learn less can be more. I really learned to listen more, and wait until people asked for advice. We get calls from everywhere in the world. Callers say that with other crisis lines, they are only allowed 10 minutes, they are not allowed to talk about something they have talked about on a previous call.”

Neil Horbachewski, volunteer and donor, talks about the callers:

“I have one caller who sometimes just says, I am doing okay. Another time he called just to say he was having a good day and wanted to share that. I get the same callers, seniors, regularly and they just want to vent and be angry. So I just listen.

“Some are financially stressed. But 9 out of 10 are not looking for help, they are just upset and angry and need to talk. So I just listen.”

img: Two people standing together.
Neil (left) and his wife Lee in 2014 after making a donation to Distress Centre.

Greg Clark, former board member, speaks to his experience observing on the crisis lines, as most board members do:

“I sat in on the crisis line with a volunteer, and I thought, this will be interesting. We will probably have time to chat, the calls will be few and far between. But it was non-stop.

“There was a boy who likely had special needs and phoned because someone he had met online wanted to meet at a 7/11 and he was calling to see if the volunteer thought that was a good idea. Some people were just sad, or lonely, and they would talk for a while and feel better at the end.

“It was a perfect illustration of the value that DC provides for thousands and thousands of people. I have zero hesitation about the work the volunteers do. If there is a serious call there is lots of support, there is a triaging process. Given a volunteer model, it is amazing how much Distress Centre does on so few dollars.”


Mike Velthuis Kroeze, Crisis Program Manager, speaks to the volunteer recruitment process in 2020:

“It used to be that people submitted an application with a couple of references and we would call them in for an interview and then decide. Now we send out an attitude survey. It is about 20 questions, trying to get an idea of how the person sees the work. We do a phone interview now which gives us a sense of what they will be like on a call. Can they handle silences? Do they speak so softly people will struggle to hear them? A final step is a presentation/interview/role play. We have created a more efficient process which is pretty amazing. “

img: A group of six people, some sitting and some standing.
Volunteers at the 2012 Volunteer Appreciation Event.

The final word on volunteers comes from ED Jerilyn Dressler:

“Previously I would have said our biggest impact was saving lives. Now, I think more and more, DC volunteers are everywhere in Calgary. There are thousands and thousands of past and present volunteers with the skills that they need in order to respond in a time of crisis. I think that is probably the biggest impact we could possibly have had. Volunteers truly are the heart of the agency, and they are regular people helping regular people, and that is what I think makes our service so special.

“The toughest job in this agency is on that front line but our volunteers care so deeply about connecting with others, caring for others, listening and helping people feel less alone. This where I get my inspiration.”

Four months into COVID-19 new training courses went online, and as of September volunteers slowly started re-entering the contact centre. The need for volunteers will never diminish, nor the value of their training and the time they dedicate to the community.

From the author:

As I write the last words on the last of this 50-story series, I hope readers have enjoyed them, and in many cases, recalled great memories. To those who were interviewed I offer my thanks, and my apologies for having to cut your words short. Maybe a fuller story will appear in a book in the future. To those who continue to support Distress Centre you are needed and very much appreciated. Here’s hoping 2021 will be better for all.

– Donna Crawford, your fellow volunteer

Distress Centre shared a story every Tuesday in 2020 for 50 weeks to celebrate our 50th Anniversary. Thank you for joining us on this journey. All stories can be found here.

In the spirit of respect, reciprocity and truth, Distress Centre Calgary would like to honour and acknowledge Moh’kinsstis, and the traditional Treaty 7 territory and oral practices of the Blackfoot confederacy: Siksika, Kainai, Piikani, as well as the Îyâxe Nakoda and Tsuut’ina nations. We acknowledge that this territory is home to the Métis Nation of Alberta, Region 3 within the historical Northwest Métis homeland. Finally, we acknowledge all Nations – Indigenous and non – who live, work and play on this land, and who honour and celebrate this territory.